The Chronicle Review

The Ties That Bind Jihadists

Scholars explore the culture of radical Islam

November 30, 2015

Jonathan Krause for The Chronicle
Thomas Hegghammer has spent the past 14 years studying jihadist groups. As director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, Hegghammer has, like most scholars of radical Islam, focused on the groups’ military tactics and political statements, their doctrines and leaders.

But he has come to believe that what jihadists do in their spare time — the jokes they tell, the poems they compose and recite, the ways they interpret each other’s dreams and cry publicly — is equally important to gaining a deeper understanding of militant groups.

Jihadist culture is "one of the last major, unexplored frontiers of terrorism research, one that merits an entire new research program," Hegghammer argued in a lecture he gave at the University of St. Andrews in April.

He is one of a growing number of scholars studying the mundane, or seemingly superfluous, activities of jihadists as a window onto the appeal and staying power of Islamic extremism.

He credits several scholars — including Manni Crone, Behnam Said, and Elisabeth Kendall — with groundbreaking work on particular cultural practices that accompany radicalization. But he argues that few attempts have been made to link such studies and examine culture "as a category of rebellious activity."

"We are just scraping the surface," he says.

Other scholars agree. That more work has not been done on jihadist poetry, for example, is "astonishing," says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. Poetry has always been a key feature of jihadist groups. "There is virtually no speech by Osama bin Laden in which he doesn’t recite poetry," says Haykel. "It’s kind of staggering that no one has looked at this material."

Few scholars may be studying bin Laden’s poetry yet, but the U.S. government has released a portion of the reading materials, documents, and correspondence found in the raid on the Al Qaeda leader’s compound — we thus know that his English reading list included Bob Woodward and Noam Chomsky. Without more context, it's hard to gauge the significance of the books and documents, says Hegghammer, but the list is a "cabinet of curiosities" that shows how the sequestered Al Qaeda leader was still trying to keep abreast of developments in the world.

Flagg Miller, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California at Davis, published a book this month (The Audacious Ascetic, Oxford University Press) based on 1,500 audiotapes from bin Laden’s personal collection that were discovered in 2002. Miller analyzes jihadists’ changing use of "Islamic cultural, legal, theological and linguistic vocabularies."

The burgeoning study of jihadist culture is deeply multidisciplinary, with contributors to a forthcoming volume, edited by Hegghammer, hailing from the fields of musicology, literature, and anthropology as well as political science. The book, tentatively titled "Jihadi Culture: What Militant Islamists Do When They're Not Fighting," will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

By Hegghammer’s definition, jihadist culture includes activities that do more than fulfill basic military needs. Some of those are quite unexpected. Public displays of weeping are an aspect of jihadist culture that intrigues Hegghammer, who notes that the practice is so common that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death, in 2006, was known as "the slaughterer" but also as "he who weeps a lot." It’s a well-respected sign of piety to weep during Quran recitations, when watching propaganda videos and reflecting on the suffering of Muslims around the world, and when talking of martyrdom and one’s desire to achieve it. It is not, however, appropriate to cry over the death in combat of comrades — the correct response is to rejoice.

There are other surprises besides the frequency with which jihadist leaders burst into tears. Iain Edgar, a professor of anthropology at Durham University and a contributor to Hegghammer’s volume, has been researching the role of dreams within jihadist groups.

Edgar is a specialist in dream cultures around the world. Dreams are taken seriously by many Muslims as potentially divine messages.

In Pakistan, Edgar learned that the late Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was widely credited with acting upon his premonitory dreams. Osama bin Laden, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, would often start the day by asking if any of his followers had had a significant dream, Edgar says. Jihadist leaders use dreams to legitimize their decisions — to carry out an attack, for example — as divinely inspired, and to emphasize their close connection with the Prophet and his companions.

"The idea that dreaming was still part of contemporary politics and of the biggest conflict today — I found that really fascinating," says Edgar.

'Nobody wakes up in the morning and goes and blows themselves up,' says Hegghammer. 'It's incremental. It's a long process.'
Other scholars are interested in the stories that jihadist movements are crafting about themselves. Haykel and Robyn Creswell, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University, have written a paper on the poetry of Islamic radical groups (a version of which appeared in June in The New Yorker). The scholars examine the pre-eminent role of poetry within Muslim culture generally and jihadist groups in particular, where most other forms of art are proscribed. Poetry, they argue, is "a window on the movement talking to itself."

Jihadists write poems lamenting the hardships they suffer (but explaining why they are worth it), winning rhetorical arguments against their critics, elegizing fallen comrades, taking political and theological stances, praising leaders, and memorializing battles. The poetry is rec­ondite, says Haykel, often modeled on early Islamic forms, because while jihadists are bent on creating a radical new reality, they cast themselves as the inheritors of Islamic tradition.

Why do jihadists, wanted men who spend their lives in hiding or combat, "waste" so much time on seemingly superfluous activities? One answer is that cultural practices may have a vital, strategic value — albeit one that is hard to define and quantify.

The line between cultural and military activity can be "fuzzy conceptual terrain," Hegghammer says. Propaganda videos that help recruitment clearly serve a military purpose — but is it necessary to invest time in recording soundtracks to them?

In recruiting members to radical groups, "you lead with culture and social bonding and then ideology comes to sink in," says Jonathan Pieslak, an associate professor of theory and composition at the City College of New York. His forthcoming book, Radicalism and Music (Wesleyan University Press), examines the music cultures of Al Qaeda, racist skinheads, Christian-affiliated radicals, and eco/animal-rights militants.

Pieslak’s previous book, Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War (Indiana University Press, 2009), was about how music was used to recruit American soldiers for the war in Iraq and to inspire combat. "The idea came to me," he says: "What is the other side doing?"

Islamic extremists practice only one form of music — which they don’t acknowledge as such, since they believe Islam forbids music. The nasheed, a genre popularized by Islamists in the 1970s, skirts this prohibition because it is a chant unaccompanied by instruments. It is the most common soundtrack in jihadist videos.

At first jihadist groups borrowed older, popular chants; as the groups developed, they produced more of their own, celebrating their leaders and mentioning specific battles. Noting that the sound quality has improved and the musical arrangements have grown more sophisticated, Pieslak proposes that "one can gauge the strength of an organization by the strength of the original musical culture it produces." And he says there are many parallels among the radical groups he has surveyed. Their songs all emphasize the need to defend a noble, beleaguered cause.

Music can "craft how someone feels," says Pieslak, and have a much more immediate emotional impact than other forms of communication. In a pamphlet titled "44 Ways to Support Jihad," Anwar Al Awlaki, a jihadist killed in Yemen in 2011, argued that "a good nasheed can spread so widely it can reach to an audience you cannot reach through a lecture or a book. Nasheeds are especially inspiring to the youth."

Jihadists hark back to an imagined past; they are renegades hailing from different countries who have often cut themselves off from their friends and families. "They need a culture to sustain them," says Haykel. In fact, "the durability of the movement can only be explained by the fact that it’s a culture."

Inspired by the work of the sociologist Diego Gambetta on how criminals communicate and establish trust, Hegghammer offers another theory: It takes time to display a command of particular cultural idioms. That investment of time signals commitment to the jihadist cause.

Studying jihadist culture presents special challenges. Researchers must conduct ethnography by proxy, using secondary sources to reconstruct and imagine the daily lives of the groups they follow. Luckily, Islamic militants produce a large amount of material about themselves and their activities and make it available online.

Sources include memoirs and autobiographies of jihadists; court documents and trial transcripts; interviews with former militants; and many videos, recordings, and texts. Of course, that material can’t be taken at face value, says Hegghammer; the militants’ goal is to attract people, so "it’s an embellished version of life in the field." But the sheer volume of material means that scholars can find valuable clues.

When watching videos, Hegghammer focuses on "what is going on in the background" — that is how he noticed, for example, people crying during the recitation of poems. Part of Haykel and Creswell’s research involved putting together the biography of a young female Syrian poet, Ahlam al-Nasr, who has become a leading ideologue of the Islamic State, relocating to Raqqa and writing poems in praise of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Gathering facts about her was "incredibly difficult investigative work," Haykel says.

In addition to the difficulty of interviewing subjects, Haykel attributes the dearth of scholarship on jihadist culture to several other factors: the language skills and cultural knowledge required; a hesitancy to delve into jihadist online forums; and a reluctance to humanize groups that are so widely abhorred.

But academics who focus on jihadi culture say it has major implications for policy. Better knowledge of these groups and how they recruit, motivate, and retain their followers could allow for better counter-recruitment efforts, which would consider the groups’ emotional and imaginative appeal.

"It’s not always about the cause, it’s not always about the doctrine. It’s about the little pleasures of rebel life," says Hegghammer. "Which incidentally is very much in line with what we know about our soldiers. People sign up not because of foreign policy but because they like military life. The order of it, the adventure of it, the friendships — the proximate social rewards."

Counter-recruitment efforts might include, for example, helping would-be militants interpret their dreams differently. Government agencies who are surveilling potential terrorists are interested, he says, in understanding how much of a red flag certain types of dreams might be.

While the policy implications are important, says Hegghammer, they are not what motivates him as a scholar. "I’m doing this because I have an urge to understand why these people behave like they do," he says. Implicit in the focus on jihadist culture, he says, is "a criticism of those who view terrorists as monsters and crazy people, and those who view them as victims of marginalization, poverty, racism" — of simplifications by observers on the right and the left of the political spectrum. "Both approaches ignore the appeal of leading the jihadi life," he says.

While policy makers would like to think of jihadists as "outliers, … a passing phenomenon," Haykel says, new jihadist groups are becoming an entrenched feature of the Middle East.

"This is a culturally deeply rooted phenomenon," he says. As much as it may go against the grain of public discourse and sentiment in the West, it’s important not to dismiss a jihadist group like the Islamic State as "just a sadistic cult."

In analyzing what draws individuals to join terrorist groups, scholars say they inevitably develop some empathy for their subjects, whose personal trajectories, when closely followed, are a chain of comprehensible choices. "Nobody wakes up in the morning and goes and blows themselves up," says Hegghammer. "It’s incremental. It’s a long process."

That may be the simplest and most troubling insight of the study of jihadist culture: not just these groups’ appeal and possible longevity, but their humanity.

Ursula Lindsey is a writer based in Cairo.